Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

April 1, 2008

Theoretical meets practical

You don’t need to spend much time in a high school before hearing the “When am I ever going to use this?” complaint.

Although the question is posed less frequently in college classrooms, a sort of tunnel vision exerts itself and it’s just assumed that knowledge is to be applied to tests, exams and other forms of academic hoop-jumping.

Not so for four Goshen College biochemistry majors. With the help of chemistry Professor Doug Schirch, the group is using the know-how acquired through a biochemistry lab to create an on-campus biodiesel plant, which will eventually benefit both the school and the environment.

“It’s something students have heard about,” said Schirch, explaining why he began teaching the lab. “And a lot of students here are environmentally conscious, and interested in sustainability.”

When he learned that several other colleges and universities were making biodiesel on their campuses, Schirch asked his students if any were interested in producing the fuel on a larger scale.

Eventually, seniors Mitch Yoder, Neil Detweiler, Nate Herr, and junior Sae Chan Lee expressed interest. Now, the four hope to be producing biodiesel to be used on campus by the end of the semester.

Biodiesel is a non-petroleum-based diesel fuel that can be produced from vegetable oils or animals fats. It is usually mixed with petroleum diesel, and can be used in any diesel engine.

“Original diesel engines ran on vegetable oil,” said Schirch. “Later, they used petroleum as a substitute.”

Vegetable oil and petroleum diesel molecules are extremely similar, said Schirch. The chemical reaction used to extract and clean biodiesel from waste vegetable oil basically breaks down the vegetable oil molecules to about one third of their original size. The resulting fuel, which emits fewer pollutants and carbon monoxide and is biodegradable, can then be used to power diesel engines.

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